Woman for All Seasons

ELLEN GOODMAN

October 05, 1993|By ELLEN GOODMAN

Boston. -- OK, so there were a few moments of high squirm. The reaction to Hillary's appearance in Congress was a touch breathless. Hillary took the Hill. She came, she spoke, she conquered. She wowed them. No, she dazzled them. No, she absolutely knocked their socks off.

One Congress member compared her to Martha Washington, another to Abraham Lincoln. One joked that he was going to auction the tea cup with her lipstick marks. Another said she should go on ''Jeopardy.''

Rep. Dan Rostenkowski gagged more than a few people by oozing, ''I think in the very near future the president will be known as your husband. Who's that fella? That's Hillary's husband.''

It recalled Samuel Johnson's remark about women preachers and dogs walking on their hind legs: ''It's not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.'' In the Congress, they're still surprised to find it done well by a first lady.

The press was in full gush. The networks were agog. A wire service reported that the president's wife was ''effortlessly answering complex questions in great detail.'' Stop the presses.

The fact is that Hillary Clinton worked the Congress like a pro. She knew the cast of congressional characters, knew who was a pharmacist and who was an enemy. She knew how to use charm on nonagenarian Strom Thurmond and deadly wit on critic Richard Armey. But more than anything else she knew her stuff. If this had been a three-day, 12-hour oral exam for a Ph.D. on health care, she would have gone directly to tenure.

And when all is said and done, it must be great to finally get graded on substance. What a chapter this was in the ongoing, best-selling Hillary Chronicles. Remember when it all began with Hillary as ''Not Tammy Wynette''? Remember Hillary as Betty Crocker? Then there was the Hillary from Hell as a feminist harridan and Hillary the Homewrecker who wanted kids to divorce their parents.

The Year of the Woman was a hard year for this political wife. The people who saw Hillary as a heroine thought she should be running for office. The people who disliked her thought she should shut up.

When the Clintons moved into the White House, we had pictures of Hillary setting the table and stories about her setting the agenda. The jokes were about ''Billary'' and co-presidencies. ''What happens if Hillary becomes incapacitated?'' asked the late-night comic. ''Bill Clinton becomes President.''

When she was appointed to head the health-care task force, we got tales of Hillary the Power Hungry. There were polls on her power, news panels on the dangers of an unaccountable wife at the health helm. Serious policy people sputtered pillow-talk paranoia.

Last spring, she was transformed, magically and sarcastically into Saint Hillary. The first lady had talked about a ''crisis of meaning'' in America. She was trashed as a sophomoric virtue-monger for suggesting that ''we need a new politics of meaning. We need a new ethos of individual responsibility and caring . . . a society that fills us up and makes us feel we are part of something bigger than ourselves.''

Meanwhile, along the way, we had Hillary and Her Hair. Her hairdos, don'ts and redos.

Hillary on the Hill is a much saner chapter, if not yet an ending. She went to the hearings as ''a mother, a wife, a sister, a woman,'' as well as honcho. She won raves as a pol and policy-wonk as well as White House Woman.

This first lady sees herself as a wife and wonk, a First Lady and Independent Woman, someone who works numbers and worries about meaning. The country is still not wholly comfortable with such duality. But we're beginning to get the hang of Hillary. And many other women who are trying to make whole lives out of the divided parts.

During the campaign, during the Hillary from Hell days, the candidate's wife held imaginary conversations with Eleanor Roosevelt. When she was feeling down, she would talk to the much-more-maligned Mrs. Roosevelt who would say, ''Get out and do it and don't make any excuses about it.''

Before she stepped into the hearing room Tuesday, an aide said to her, ''This is Eleanor Roosevelt time.'' Hillary on the Hill. Hillary as Herself. Eleanor would have loved it.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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